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California Pre-Law Students Offer Free Legal Aid in Panama

by Connie K. Ho | September 19th, 2011

Eye-opening. This is the one word that would describe Janie Le’s volunteer experience in Panama with the Global Law Brigades chapter of the University of California, Irvine. Le, an anthropology major, embarked on a whirlwind journey this past spring break, full of legal clinic workshops and Central American culture.

Global Brigades is a student-led health and sustainable development organization that focuses on implementing positive change in regions like Africa and Central America. The organization launched in 2004 and has since sent thousands of students abroad to assist low resourced communities. Le attended a program in Panama that helped rural farmers with legal issues.

“I got what I thought I would get out of it and even more. I was just expecting to go to Panama and experience the culture there,” remarked Le on her experience.

Le was first interested in participating in the organization after taking anthropology classes that focused on humanitarian law. She spent the following months attending Global Law Brigade meetings, fundraising to pay for the trip, and researching various aspects of Panamanian law. She was even promoted to a board member position, where she was able to gain leadership skills and become friends with other students who were interested in humanitarian law.

Arriving in rural Panama, Le wasn’t scared or anxious for the experience but she did start to feel the difficulties of keeping in contact with her family. The location that she stayed at had limited phone and internet service. During her time in rural Panama, she also saw some of the socioeconomic disparities in the country. For example, in the countryside, there were limited times at which the water could be used and farmers walked miles to receive legal advice. In the city, modern skyscrapers were built next to more run-down buildings.

“The juxtaposition of poor and rich is something that stuck with me,” commented Le.

After returning from her trip abroad, Le has a renewed passion for international service and believes that service learning is important.

“We’re becoming a more global society and it’s something you can’t stop. Apart from cultural interaction, there should be a service aspect to it as well. It’s rewarding for the receiving end, and it’s rewarding from the giving end. You learn from different cultures and you meet interesting people and you can help them,” commented Le. “International service is another form of community service and it’s part of your job to be a giving member of the local community–the global community is just an extension of the community.”

Le is currently applying to law school and is considering a career in public service.

“Before I went on the trip, I was thinking, maybe I’ll go into public interest law. I wasn’t really sure but, when I went to Panama, I think I took it more seriously,” said Le. “It wasn’t some abstract idea that I had in my head–there were people with real problems in their lives. I’m still unsure and I’m still weighing what area of law I want to go into, but going there make me think more seriously about public interest law.”

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